I am quite excited about the Gospel this week. As I was preparing for this sermon, by doing personal readings and talking with our Bible study group, I had a surprise. I discovered that most people react strongly to this passage from Matthew about dealing with conflicts in the church. Most people (including priests, scholars, theologians) seem to dislike this text very much – would like it removed from the Book – when I absolutely love it.
So today I am hoping to make you change your mind about this text if you don’t like it or find it necessary, and if I can’t make you change your mind (everybody’s entitled to their opinions and feelings!), at least I would like to invite you to think about it a little differently. Matthew was very concerned with the problem of organizing / leading the church – much more than all other evangelists. We have to take seriously what he has to say, so let’s dive in.
Why do most people dislike this passage? Jesus seems to say that if people in the church don’t behave / if they don’t do the right thing, they should be excluded / removed from the community. Seems unfair and unlike Jesus. We have all our struggles, shortcomings, failings – We are all sinners in the church! Church should be a safe place to be who we are.
– 1st important remark: It’s not about lifestyle. The text says: “If another member of the church sins against you”. Greek: “eis sé”. Interestingly, those two words have been removed from a few manuscripts. Yet they make all the difference.
It’s not about lifestyle, people doing what we personally think is right or wrong: Being homosexual, “living in sin”, being “Gentile and tax collectors” and so on.
It’s about people hurting others / harming others by their behaviors. Sinning against.
The confusion is easy. We talked with the Bible study group about the Calvinist churches during the Reformation. Because of this passage, the Council of elders would visit people at their place to make sure they lived according to some moral standards and there was a lot of judgment, interference and exclusions. Can you imagine our vestry doing that to you? But once again, the passage is not about that / it’s not what we are invited to do as a church!
We are not invited to judge people but to take into account the sufferings they inflict on others / on us. This passage of the Gospel comes in the context of Jesus asking us not to be a stumbling block for the faith of the “little ones”!
– This passage invites us to take responsibility when we are confronted to evil / sin.
Take responsibility for yourself: If somebody hurts you and you don’t do anything, it will damage you and/or damage your relationships with them and others in the future.
Take responsibility for others: If somebody hurts you, they probably hurt others the same way. You need to try your best to make them stop.
A good commentary I read about that was a man saying that his aging mother was dangerous behind the wheel. He said he had to talk to her, even though it was uncomfortable, to make her stop driving. She was not just a danger to herself but to the whole town. He said he would have felt responsible if she had been involved in an accident and hurt someone.
Every week in our confession, we ask God to forgive us for things done “and left undone”. What about things “left unsaid”?
Take responsibility for the person who sins against you: Jesus says “Regain that one”. Maybe this person just need someone to tell them something. Sinning against others is a way of acting out when the offender deals with personal suffering. It can help them deal with their own problem when we give them attention. If nobody ever says anything, they end up thinking their behavior is okay.
Bonhoeffer: “Nothing can be more cruel than the tenderness that consigns another to sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin.”
Importance of taking responsibility: Sexual, financial, spiritual abuse are not an exception in the church / organized religions. They happen frequently as in all other kind of organizations (including families). The church needs to model a way to deal with abusers. Unfortunately, most churches are “conflicts avoidant”, we do the other way around – pretend everything is okay or not that serious – and a lot of people get hurt. Jesus warns his disciples not to be naive, they will have to deal with problems.
Jesus does not ask us to exclude people and be judgmental and get into conflicts. Jesus warns us that the conflict / the problem is already here and we have to face it to solve it instead of pretending it’s not there.
– My question is: Why is it that so often we don’t deal with conflict? We don’t acknowledge the hurt?
Well, maybe it’s because it’s uncomfortable. More than that, when people sin against us, it makes us feel ashamed. Ashamed for having trusted them / liked them. They make us feel like we have done something wrong or stupid, and we will always feel that it’s too late and we should have spoken earlier.
Most of the time, we pretend nothing is happening because we are ashamed. But shame will result in destructive behaviors: either self loathing / guilt / addictions or desire for vengeance / hatred / becoming passive aggressive.
Talking is hard because talking makes the hurt real, but the only way out it through. We think we’re going to make things worse if we raise the issue, yet it’s the only way to solve it.
Jesus: We have to talk to the offender, have them acknowledge the hurt not in order to judge and exclude them, but ask them to change and see if the relationship can be restored. But we also have to remove from the community those who are a threat to others / not those who threaten the power of others (NOT like we often do in our society, sending people to jail based on racial and economical discrimination) on the other way around, we have to remove those who threaten the powerless!
– Last week, we talked about the power of compassion. Yet, there is a balance here between compassion and honesty, or maybe as Bonhoeffer says, honesty can be the real compassion: For oneself, for others (potential victims), and also for the offender.
This Gospel encourages us to act with compassion and honesty, courage and realism. If someone hurts you, don’t talk behind their backs or post something about them on social medias. Go talk to them. Maybe it’s a misunderstanding, or maybe the person will ask for forgiveness right away or at least think about it. Maybe they don’t know how to talk to you and they would be more than happy to have an opportunity to say they’re sorry and to be restored in a real relationship / not a fake one.
Yet, be careful with people who hurt you. You’re not alone when someone does you wrong. In the church, as in every community, we should look out for each other and especially for those who are unheard and at risk of abuse based on sex / racial / economical discrimination.
Dealing with sin is not about bringing judgment and exclusion it’s always about redemption and restoration. Yet we need to be aware that people exclude themselves first when they decide to hurt others. The first Church acknowledged this exclusion – what did the first Christians. If there was no other way, they would physically exclude people from the community, but they would also reintegrate them based on their good will, desire for change and repentance. I think it’s sometimes good to remember that when people hurt us intentionally and don’t seem to understand or to want to change, it’s okay to let go of them and to remove them from our lives and even from our communities – even if only for a time. Forgiveness and restoration is always the horizon, but we cannot make it happen if the offender “does not listen” as Jesus reminds us three times in a row. The offender also need to take responsibility. Hopefully, the church will make it possible for everybody to change and to grow.
“What should set the church apart is not the absence of conflicts, but the way we deal with conflicts”